Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

October 30, 2018 at 9:17 pm.

Iowa State expects stronger finish in 2018

According to the Sagarin ratings, guess which team has played the toughest schedule in the country so far in 2018?

It’s not some SEC powerhouse or Big Ten behemoth — it’s Iowa State. The Cyclones have a 4-3 record despite playing seven teams that made a bowl game in 2017. Those opponents are 32-15 in all games not against the Cyclones, so it’s not like they’re playing any worse this year.

That’s a sign of progress, especially given the team’s 1-3 start. Now, the trick is to avoid the fate that befell last year’s squad, which limped into the postseason thanks to a 1-3 November after beginning with six wins over their first eight games.

Coach Matt Campbell and his staff think this year’s team is better positioned to avoid that kind of a slide. The Cyclones, who were ranked 24th in Tuesday’s first College Football Playoff rankings, have improved their depth under Campbell’s watch, with the decreased snap counts for many of the starters a testament to the overall talent. The staff has been more willing to dip into the bench than in the past, and the returning starters now know what to expect and presumably are less likely to wear down.

The 40-31 win over Texas Tech last Saturday may have been an example of that. It wasn’t a vintage performance from the Cyclones, with special teams shenanigans and early defensive lapses making the game much closer than it should have been, but Iowa State came away with its third win in a row.

That said, there isn’t much in the way of schedule relief. Kansas may not have made a bowl last season, but the Jayhawks are no longer the laughingstock of the Big 12. For the first time since 2014, Kansas has three wins in a season, with a month yet to play. It’s coming off a 27-26 victory over TCU.

With five games left, Iowa State has a lot to play for. The Cyclones can reach the Big 12 championship if it wins out and gets some help and fall short of a bowl game entirely with another collapse. Their postseason destination will be determined by their finish.

Which means it all rides on whether the coaching staff is right, and these Cyclones are better prepared for November than last year’s team was. This Saturday will be the first test to see if that’s the case.